Extraordinary Women of Essex

Exhibit to Open at Museum

Ruth Virginia Bayton is one of the extraordinary women of Essex whose stories are being told by the Essex County Museum in an exhibit opening later this month.

Ruth Virginia Bayton is one of the extraordinary women of Essex whose stories are being told by the Essex County Museum in an exhibit opening later this month.

First Of Two Parts

March is National Women’s History Month, so the Essex County Museum has chosen ten extraordinary women from Essex County and the Middle Peninsula to honor in a new exhibit opening on Wednesday, March 22nd at 4:00 pm.

According to David Jett, the curator of the Museum, and Executive Director Tim Manley along with a committee of history enthusiasts — the ten Extraordinary Women chosen for the exhibit had to meet certain benchmarks: “The selection process was based on diverse individuals who had a strong connection with Essex County and the Middle Peninsula; were trailblazers in their particular fields; had an impact on the area or achieved great levels of success, and represented different time periods.” They were also from the past.

The Essex County Museum has taken great strides to expose the rich history of Tappahannock and the surrounding area; to educate the young on the importance of what this area offers whether in farmland, artifacts depicting the cultures that existed hundreds of years ago and still exist today, or in this newest exhibit to illustrate that even in the early 1600s women made important contributions to the development of the country.

To give you just a taste of what you will uncover at the Museum’s exhibit, here are the first five Extraordinary Women:

  1. Cockacoeske

Cockacoeske was the daughter of Opechancanough, the ‘paramount chief’ of Tsenacomoco, which was an alliance of Virginia’s Indians in the 1600s who fought against the English colonists. Upon his death and the later death of her husband in 1656, Cockacoeske became the ‘Weroance,” the chief of the Powhatan Confederacy that was allied with the Rappahannock Tribe. She worked for the next thirty years, within the strictures of British rule, to rebuild her Father’s empire. England named her the “Queen of the Pamunkey.”

2. Mary Mercer Garnett -1800s

Mary Mercer Garnett was the predominant teacher headed the Elmwood School for women. The School’s academic offerings equaled those of many outstanding academies for boys. Mrs. Garnett was considered “a lady of remarkable mental powers” and of great character. The school closed upon her death but many girls in those years received a prized education.

3. Lucy Yates Wellford Gray (1781-1860)

Lucy Yates Wellford Gray was the founder and principal of the Tappahannock Seminary on the Rappahannock River, a school for young girls right in the heart of town, on Prince Street. Eight hundred young ladies graduated from the institution over the years having learned writing, reading, domestic arts and manners to name a few of their subjects.

4. Catherine McCall – (early 1800s)

In 1789 the well-educated and wealthy Catherine McCall founded a blacksmith shop and nail factory in Alexandria, Virginia. In 1806, she opened another factory in Richmond called ‘Mc- Call’s Basin on the edge of the Canal.’ One of her competitors was Thomas Jefferson. Over the years the factories grew as nails were needed, in all forms, for the growth and expansion of towns and cities. It was rare for a woman to run an industrial business at that time; however, McCall was highly successful.

5. Ruth Virginia Bayton

Born right here in Tappahannock in 1907, Ruth Virginia Bayton led a dramatic life. It began with a beauty pageant in New York in 1922 which led to a chorus line in London then back to New York for Broadway and a silent film in 1926. She was then off to Paris and Berlin where she was supposedly involved with the King of Spain. She disappeared during the Spanish Civil War; then reappeared in Argentina in 1937 and returned to America in 1946.

Each of these women, and the five more you will read about next week, broke barriers and found their calling in extraordinary fashion. Women and men who followed benefitted from their resilience and foresight. Learn more about their fascinating lives and the history that abounds here on the Rappahannock at the Essex County Museum at 218 Water Lane in Tappahannock. Ongoing activities and the Museum hours are available on the website.

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